How ACL Tears Hamper NFL Running Backs

Carter’s career ended before it began (Associated Press)

Athletes who suffer severe knee injuries tend to contemplate suicide.  After all, a damaged joint could equate into millions of dollars in lost income.  Along with the financial pain, tearing an anterior cruciate ligament (or two) can hinder an individual’s agility, balance and explosiveness.  For running backs, years may pass before an NFL workhorse can replicate his performances previous to an ACL problem.

This season, Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles and Rashard Mendenhall are notable backs returning from ACL tears, and they hope to remain effective as before.  We should look to history to sense the size of the mountain these ball carriers must climb to mount their comebacks.

First, the ACL’s purpose.  The ligament holds the femur and tibia together, and keeps the knee stable during deceleration and changes in direction.  The ACL’s susceptibility to injury is a result of the upper body’s weight bearing down on the joint.  Surgery is required when there is insufficient blood flow to repair the tissue.  Without an ACL, athletes simply crumple to the ground.

As depressing as tearing an ACL may sound, there is hope for athletes who succumb to its cruelty.  Recent advances in sports medicine have made the surgery more successful than ever, in addition to dedication in rehabilitation, which has always restored flexibility in the knee’s range in motion.  Professional trainers and team physicians will ensure that a player’s recovery is hiccup-free.  There are also many ACL injury survivors littered on NFL rosters who can lend support.  Life is going to be okay.

McGahee tore his ACL, MCL and PCL in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl

Running backs surviving to see another day include Jamal Lewis, Edgerrin James and Terry Allen.  Lewis is the only man to rush for 2,000 yards in a regular season after sustaining an ACL tear.  He missed his entire NFL sophomore year to injury, but lasted to play eight more seasons.  James blew out his knee following back-to-back monster seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, but managed to collect over 1,000 yards on the ground from 2003 to 2007.  Allen bested his career year before the knee injury in 1993, and scored 21 rushing touchdowns in 1996.  Even the shifty Willis McGahee carved out a successful NFL career after horrific knee damage in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl.

But not everyone emerges unscathed.  The careers of Ki-Jana Carter, Terrell Davis, Deuce McAllister, Cadillac Williams, Olandis Gary and countless others prematurely ended due to lost athleticism to ACL injuries.  Carter, the first overall draft selection in 1995, shredded his left knee in a preseason game and became a journeyman.  McAllister suffered two ACL tears in three years, and was a shell of his Pro Bowl form.  One-time wonder Gary played 35 games subsequent to his injury and accumulated a meager 759 rushing yards.  These are the names that Peterson, Charles and Mendenhall do not wish to be associated with.

The reality is that when you tear an ACL, you should aim to return at 99%, because you will never be the same.  Jamal Lewis, Edgerrin James and Terry Allen retired with great statistics, but they could have been better.  When you compare their total yards from scrimmage in the seasons before and after the knee injuries, there is a net loss of 1,351 yards produced from the previous year (James missed two games in his comeback season.)  Even the role models of ACL recovery could not avoid a slump initially returning to the field.

And consider the mental trauma that requires time to heal.  When an athlete returns from a brutal injury, something doesn’t feel right.  Running backs hesitate to make sharp cuts, because there is no trust in their knee.  It won’t matter what the surgeons say.  Injury returnees need a grace period to adjust to their new bodies.  Due to the pace of the NFL, running backs never have this luxury.

Charles averaged 6.4 yards per rush in 2010 (Associated Press)

What should we anticipate from Peterson, Charles and Mendenhall in 2012?  Nothing to remember in five years.  Peterson and Mendenhall went down in weeks sixteen and seventeen last season respectively, so their status for opening week is uncertain.  Despite reports Peterson is superhuman, expectations need to be tamed.  Mendenhall is a north-south runner, so he may face less trouble adjusting on the field.  Charles tore his knee in week two and appears to be fine, but he will split carries with newcomer Peyton Hillis and the amazing Dexter McCluster.  Casual fans ignore that the Kansas City burner has never been a workhorse back in his career, so Hillis may receive a majority of the carries as they ease him back into the offense.

While their immediate prospects seem dim, I expect the trio to reach the 1,000 yard mark again in their careers.  Particularly Peterson, who runs upright and throws off defenders with his upper body strength.  Charles and Mendenhall are 25 years old, so a setback will not close the window on their physical prime.  I also consider that new therapeutic treatments will be available to them.

For an NFL running back, tearing an ACL is a living nightmare.  I doubt Ki-Jana Carter’s surgeon gets many referrals.  The ACL should be worshipped for its remarkable resistance to stress, but we should also take a moment to think about how medicine has improved the sports community.  40 years ago, a torn ligament symbolized early retirement.  Today, recovery is still not a guarantee, but it doesn’t mean your life in football is over.

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